Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Adamnán of Iona: Life of St Columba, summary


Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170
Summary:

ADAMNÁN OF IONA: LIFE OF ST COLUMBA
Fisherman of the Fishful River

St. Adamnán, 3rd paternal cousin to Columba (of the northern Uí Néill princes: Cenél Conaill, the religious dynasty of Iona) writes a Tripartite Life, 100 years after Columba’s death.

Using earlier Lives (Sts Antony, Benedict) as his models, he portrays his kinsman as a Christ-like archdruid and warrior-king—much in the vein of the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick and the Historical Life... by St. Fiacc, ca. 500. 

Though the three sections of the book are loosely modeled after the (150) Psalms (Columba dies while writing the 34th Psalm), many of the stories are straight out of folk tradition. 

Foremost of Columba’s larger than life accomplishments is his ability to control the weather (wind, water: especially the sea), a druidic function. Good following wind (lateen sails) for good sailors. A religious hero, Columba is associated with pagan heroes and gods: is he Mananán mac Lír, or Finn? Light is heavily associated with him (probably the Aurora Borealis), making him a half-mortal CuChulainn type hero: Lug comes to mind. We learn angels travel at the speed of light.

Lots of epic tags—with feasts lasting 3 days and 3 nights, Otherworldly music, water monsters, chariots, a magic cloak, magic hunting stake, ruddy cheeks, holy/evil wells and floating magic white healing stones thus making him a healer as well... Along with Columba’s beseeching that no one is to breathe a word that he’s special “he wanted to avoid boasting,” is the monkish preoccupation that the community will be overrun with pilgrims who, under the laws of hospitality, would have to be fed and housed. 

Adamnán mentions “Soldiers of Christ” reaffirming the fianna warrior role of monks who dip white robes into red blood (priestly & warrior functions). Heaven and death (many stories record saints’ deaths) takes on the guise of the Otherworld, the Land of Promise. 

Several saint/heroes are mentioned: Brendan of Birr, Colmán, Finnian (St. Uinniau—the ‘F’ silent/lenited) to titillate the crowd. The cult of Columba is so strong he can even perform posthumous weather miracles.

Columba has a way with animals: salmon leap into his boat (don’t eat his seals!). His white horse (king-function?) buries his head in Columba’s lap (paying homage?) and weeps at his upcoming death. Many cattle/milk-demon stories (bull’s milk = white blood; a sacrifice story. 

He spends time on an unidentified islet called Hinba: h-in-ba (h-inis bó) could be translated as the isle of the cows. He raises laymen to nobleman status with 5-fold (105) herds of magic cows. As the Life was written in Latin, it seems Eilean Shona (the S is silent) where they built longships? could be construed as a garbled form of Iona (a scribal error?).

Several references to holy or “righteous” pagans earning their way towards heaven—smack of Pelagianism—baptism, an afterthought. The landscape is fraught with remote isle hermitages; every monk searching for his own little hut (in a bee-loud glade), an influence from St. Antony of Egypt. 

Curious are the painstaking references to “...three witnesses as required by law,” Adamnán inserts: he sounds like a Brehon. 

Adamnán sternly addresses his future audience: the reader/copyist several times: this ms. wasn’t just meant to be read aloud to assembled monks after dinner, but also to be read alone in the scriptorium. There is a preoccupation with copying manuscripts: whenever Columba absent-mindedly blesses something is when he’s copying a book—the very reason why he was exiled to begin with (and, a war). 

The story also documents the first copyright, and the first reference to proofreading (the missing letter ‘i”). Adamnán makes light of Columba’s crime, and beseeches readers to copy HIS text word-for-word (to receive blessings and to establish Ionian Church claims farther afield—a missionary effort.) 

It is Adomnán’s last wish that copies of the ms. of Columba reach the far corners tripartite Celtic homeland (& Christendom): Spain (Celto-Iberia), Italy Beyond the Alps (Cisalpine Gaul), and Gaul—even to Rome.


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